29 July 2016

Weekend links for NoCo

Why is it always so much easier to remember how awesome your life is in the summer? Oh right, because it is more awesome in the summer. 

Best Brunch Spots

Door 222, Loveland (opens at 11:30am)
Lucile's, Fort Collins
Rise!, Fort Collins
Snooze, Fort Collins
Sugar House, Eaton

Best Breweries

1933 Brewing, Fort Collins
Coopersmith's, Fort Collins
Verboten Brewing, Loveland
Weldwerks, Greeley

Outdoor Fun

Gateway Natural Area, Fort Collins
Horsetooth Reservoir and Mountain Park, Fort Collins
Poudre River Corridor, Greeley, Windsor, and Fort Collins
Windsor Lake, Windsor

26 July 2016

Mark Bittman's "simplest dal", revisited.

Every time I want to make dal, I look at all of the other recipes online, and then I come back to Mark Bittman's. It is simple, as the name promises, and delicious.  But I do miss the richness of tomato in it, and I do wish it had a bit more variety from bite to bite.  Sometimes I will stir in some chopped greens, as recorded below, other times I'll add roasted cauliflower and mushrooms, or steamed chunks of potato and peas, or even steamed green beans, to give it some substance. Bittman's original recipe works best as a room-temperature dip with pita wedges, but this way, it is a hearty meal. 

A variation on Mark Bittman's Simplest Dal

Serves 4

1 cup dried red lentils, washed and picked over [Other beans you can use: brown lentils, yellow split peas, split mung beans without skins]
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 serrano pepper, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups (packed) spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped or torn
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves
lemon wedges, hot sauce, and cooked rice, for serving

Combine all the ingredients except the tomato paste, spinach, and cilantro in a saucepan, add water to cover by about 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles gently, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until the lentils are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and keep cooking to the desired tenderness.

The lentils should be saucy but not soupy. Remove the cloves and maybe the cardamom pods (they're edible, though). Stir in the tomato paste and spinach and leave until the spinach is wilted  Taste and adjust the seasoning, then garnish with cilantro and serve.

22 July 2016

Weekending it in the Redneck Riviera

The Gulf of Mexico is beautiful--fine white sand, moderate waves, warm ocean water--but prices vary depending on where you choose to dwell while you are visiting.  Traveling to Mexico is disproportionately dangerous, at least until they figure out how to wrestle political control away from the drug cartels. Louisiana's beaches basically don't exist, Central and South Florida is where everybody goes, and Texas and Mississippi are, well, Texas and Mississippi.  Your best bet for a luxurious vacation on the cheap is to visit the magical land affectionately known as the "Redneck Riviera" on the north end of the Gulf.  Pensacola, Florida is the nearest airport, and from there you can drive West into Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama along scenic Highway 292 and enjoy the views on either side--the Gulf to the South and Perdido Key to the North.

There are only so many days of digging sand out of everywhere and avoiding the careening traffic coming out of Surf Style shops a person can stand, but a weekend is a perfect amount of time to soak up the sun, do some swimming, and eat super-fresh seafood.

Lodging: In both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores you will find more vacation rentals than you can shake the proverbial stick at, but we stayed at the ridiculously luxurious Turquoise Place, where every bedroom had its own private bath and balcony access to great views, the kitchen was appropriate for filming a cooking show (like, fancier than PBS), and you were on the beach as soon as you rolled your lazy ass out of the lobby.  If you don't like salt water, however, you could take advantage of a number of pools, hot tubs, saunas, and this magical creation called a "lazy river" (see above) right in the complex.

There are also cabin rentals further West at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores (referenced below in "activities").

Activities: Besides being a beach bum, there's paragliding, dolphin watching, chartered fishing, and water ski rentals at your disposal.  There are planes flying overhead advertising all of the touristy services on banners all day (tacky, yes, but no worse than anywhere else in the aforementioned states), so just pull over and get out your cell phone.

There are also some great water activities as well as hiking and nature observations to be made at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. Cabin rentals are available but in short supply, so plan ahead if you want to experience a simpler living style on your trip.

Dining: You'll find a whole lot of fried food shacks along Hwy 292 near the beach, Sea N Suds being a local favorite, but if you want fresh oysters, crawfish, and shrimp, may I suggest:

Shux in Pensacola, which serves plenty of fried as well as fresh seafood. I loved both the raw and grilled oysters and the seafood stuffed potato skins. The grits with crawfish remoulade were also delicious.

City Donut: They do not serve seafood here (at least I hope not), but you have to have donuts, right?

Rouses: Rouses is merely a popular grocery store chain down here, but the incredibly fresh, and affordable, raw oysters and cooked crawfish were at least as good as any restaurant, but maybe even tastier eaten in our fancy kitchen at Turquoise Place.

19 July 2016

This is a way of making Mapo Tofu, and you can find the ingredients at Safeway.

Look, how to make the "correct" mapo tofu is a sticky subject, but from my research, I have found that many different subsets of Chinese culture have their own idea about what it's supposed to taste like.  Then there's the Japanese version, which is its own thing and also the only correct recipe if you ask them.  It's kind of like organized religion.  

I am polyamorous when it comes to anything involving tofu and ground pork, so I'm not limited by your preconceptions. But I am cheap and too lazy to drive all over Denver looking for esoteric ingredients; I guess I really worship at the church of The Closest Grocery Store to My House.  So, I'm sorry if you don't like this, or maybe you want to call it something else, like Golden Delicious Ground Pork and Tofu.  But when you try my recipe, you'll be sold.  (PS--vegetarians can use shiitakes instead of pork and it's still really, really good!)

Mapo Tofu

Serves 4

1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced ginger
4 green onions, sliced
1 tablespoon black bean paste will also work
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
6 ounces ground pork
1 block of silken tofu, drained and cut into 3/4” cubes
Hot rice for serving

Add the water, cornstarch, soy sauce and sugar to a small bowl and stir to combine.

Heat a large frying pan until hot. Add the pork, ginger and green onions and stir-fry with a spatula, to breaking it the pork into small grains, until pork is cooked through. Add the black beans paste and chili garlic sauce and continue stir-frying. Add the tofu, and toss to mix.

Give the cornstarch mixture a good stir to incorporate anything that may have settled, and then pour it over the pork and tofu. Toss to coat, then boil until the sauce thickens.

Serve with hot rice.

15 July 2016

Traveling meals

As a freelance musician, I spend a lot of time traveling when I should be sitting at the dining room table with a healthy meal. I have attempted to eat cold leftover spaghetti while driving through a snow storm (super, duper bad idea), I have been mid-swig of coffee while getting rear-ended by a teenage boy who can't drive and sneeze at the same time (still have the stain on my ceiling), and I have certainly succumbed many times to the gut bombs that are fast joints and, worse yet, gas station "delis".  I've decided that, upholstery and clothing stains not withstanding, packing my own food is best because a) classical music doesn't pay well and b) I often feel like I'm truly about to die for at least eight hours after eating a Whopper Jr. Oh, c) something about being healthy. But really, it's a) and b).

Normal people can also get friendlier with packing meals for the same reasons. Whether you want to stop eating out of vending machines at work, wish to avoid the outrageous prices for tasteless food at the airport, or are just looking for some new ideas for picnics (my favorite part of hiking), it's really easy to pack something delicious to reward you for putting on grown-up clothes and leaving the house. And this stuff will all keep unrefrigerated for a respectable amount of time.

The insipid "healthy choice" of the 90s really is a great idea for travel. I never liked them much, maybe because the only wheat wraps I could find at the store tasted like cardboard. But now I use sheets of nori (you know that stuff you bought when you were going to get all fancy and make sushi, then you realized making sushi sucks? That stuff.), rice paper wrappers (the stuff you make spring rolls out of), or big leaves of collards, Swiss chard, or whatever else is growing in the garden.  I actually love them.

I'll start by sharing this adorable video of a very capable but unenthusiastic young Brit making a wrap (Sweet Jesus, that's a lot of butter).

You don't even have to close the ends if your nori or greens won't cooperate. In fact, here's a nice little blog post on using nori. The only trick with rice paper is soaking it briefly--follow package directions. Now,  let's use some more interesting ingredients.

Spreads: Tuscan white bean dip, walnut-feta spread, and North African party dip all work great as a tasty glue in your wrap. So does guacamole, for that matter.  NOT BUTTER.

Grains: Use something sticky, like short-grain white or brown rice. Stir a little bit of vinegar into it if you want a flavor evocative of sushi.

Protein: Chopped hard boiled egg, mashed up beans (in place of a spread, above), cheese of any kind, or any leftover cooked meat will do. Try to stay away from those deli meats, though--they're nasty, and I care about you.

Vegetables: I try to avoid veggies with high water content if the wrap is going to sit around for obvious reasons, but otherwise, anything works.  Cut into spears for maximum efficiency when eating. 

Some favorite combinations: 
rice paper-sushi rice-finely chopped boiled egg, carrot sticks,gojuchang; 
collared green leaf-Tuscan white bean dip, chopped black olives, sun dried tomatoes, walnuts; 
nori-guacamole, brown rice, black beans, red onion, spinach

A leafy salad with a couple of cherry tomatoes is not going to get you through much of the day, so you need to get a little heavier. These are awkward to eat while driving, but I have always gotten them through airport security, and it's perfect for picnics.

Grains: farro, barley, bulgar, quinoa, short-grain rices (long grain gets too dry)

Pastas: any shape works great, but go for something whole wheat, multi grain, or otherwise fortified for extra nutritional oomph.

Veggies: consider roasting a big pan of mixed veg to toss into salads or eat as sides throughout the week.  They'll really keep things form getting boring. Then when you mix in some fresh chopped vegetables, you've got a lot more variety in textures and flavors going on.

Fresh Herbs: Seriously.  If you have any growing in your window or garden (or the neighbor's garden, which you harvest at 2am--I'm not here to judge), chop and stir some of that stuff in here. It's going to be delicious.

Dressing: Any salad dressing you have already made (here are some ideas if you're stuck) will be great here, too. Don't make it complicated.

Some favorites: 
Farro with Vinegar-Glazed Sweet Potato and Apples
Barley Bowl with Miso Dressing
Tomato and Garbanzo Salad
Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad
Quinoa and Roasted Vegetable Salad
Mediterranean Lentil Salad

12 July 2016

Pasta alla Norma is basically Italian Stir Fry

Sometimes eggplants are cheap at the store, and I buy them.  And then I think, "what the hell am I going to do with this crap?"  Well, here's something fast, easy, loaded with fresh summer produce, and almost impossible to screw up (have someone else make the pasta for you if you can't deal). And do you want to know the best part?  It is supposedly named for the opera Norma by the Sicilian-born composer Vincenzo Bellini. (PS--both are delicious.)

Pasta alla Norma

Serves 6

I tablespoon olive oil
1 small eggplant, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 small onion, sliced into half-moons
1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 large roma tomatoes (or equivalent), roughly chopped
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt
Handful fresh basil leaves, torn
Hot pasta or rice and ricotta or cottage cheese for serving

In a large skillet, heat the oil on medium-high heat.  Add the eggplant, onion, and red bell pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until very brown.  Reduce the heat to low and stir in the balsamic vinegar, scraping up any brown bits in the skillet.

Stir in the tomatoes, capers, red pepper flakes, and salt and cover, simmering until tomatoes have broken down and the whole thing looks like a chunky sauce.  Stir in the basil, remove from heat, and serve over hot pasta or rice, with the cheese available for stirring into individual portions. 

08 July 2016

Cocktail Hour in the summer

You know what I haven't published in a long time? Cocktail recipes!  And let's be honest, you're totally going to make all of these tonight, even though no one's coming over...

Each recipe serves 1

1.5 oz.Sloe gin
Soda water to taste
Crushed ice with
4 wedges of lime, plus one to garnish
One teaspoon of brown sugar
10 basil leaves

Take a chilled rocks glass, throw in 9 basil leaves, 4 wedges of lime and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Muddle until the lime juice is soaking the other ingredients. Fill the glass with ice and pour over the Sloe gin. Top with chilled soda and stir. Garnish the cocktail with a wedge of lime and a basil leaf, for  best Instagram results.

Jan Collins
3/4 ounce vodka 
1/4 ounce triple sec 
1/2 ounce club soda 
3/4 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 
1/4 ounce simple syrup 
Orange wheel for garnish

Combine vodka, triple sec, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a glass, top with club soda, and garnish with half an orange wheel. Then tell people it's not a girly drink.

Astoria Bianco
1 1/4 ounces gin
1/2 ounce Italian (sweet) vermouth 1 dash orange bitters
Orange twist for garnish

Combine gin, vermouth, and orange bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice.
Shake contents and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Rusty Nail
3/4 oz Drambuie 
1 1/2 oz Scotch Whisky

Pour all ingredients directly into old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir. Garnish with a lemon twist.

05 July 2016

Breakfast all day!

Hello, my friends. I hope you all enjoyed excellent celebrations yesterday, if you are Stateside.  As some of you may know, yesterday was also, coincidentally, my birthday, so I hope you figured out your own grilling recipes and party cocktails, because I was too busy to share mine.

The best thing about having a birthday in the summer (well, if you are an underemployed freelance classical musician), is that you can be a lazy, unproductive pig all day. And the best part about it happening on a holiday is that no one will even notice you stumbling around drunk in your front yard at noon, because they are all concentrating on trying not to fall, themselves.  And so this day, the day after my and also the nation's birthday, I treat myself to my favorite meal: brunch. Because I love eggs, and they also sop up the extra alcohol in my system.

But I've already shared plenty of egg dishes with you people before.  Let's refresh your memories, shall we?

There are the many configurations of migas. Similarly, you could make the Best Breakfast Tacos Ever. Or if you want to channel your inner Middle Easterner, shakshuka.

There are casseroles, like this crustless quinoa quiche,  Or a similar one with wild rice, instead. Or this custardy orzo, bacon, and spinach bake or savory bread pudding (both of which can be put together ahead of time).

I love putting fried eggs on top of this Thug Kitchen okra and potato hash or on some potato pancakes topped with avocado bearnaise. Or kimchi fried rice hash.


01 July 2016

Ideas for simple summer getaways

I love the carefree, yet slightly homey feeling of a weekend spent in a small rental where I can hike, swim, explore a nearby city, and bring home local market delicacies to make simple meals for myself. Even driving down the road to a place you already like for a day trip can be a real treat when you don't have to rush yourself to cram all your activities into one day.  For instance, I live about 1:30 from Rocky Mountain National Park. We most often go for the day, leaving right after an early breakfast, fill the day with a long hike, and drive home for dinner.  But once in a while, we treat ourselves to a cheap hotel room in town with hot tubs on the premises (because: mountains) and then we can hike both days, enjoy the town at night, and just generally move at a more leisurely pace.  It's pretty cheap, and because we're not flying, we can toss all kinds of contraband in the car (beer, flamethrowers, large bottles of shampoo--the sky's the limit).  You could try:

A nearby city. See the art galleries you never quite make the time for, stroll along the antique district that's a little too far past your usual destinations,shop at a local specialized market, and actually have breakfast in that cool cafe you can never seem to get to before they close when you're driving from home. Fun cities to consider, if you don't have one nearby: Seattle, Denver, Portland, L.A., Boise (seriously!), Omaha, Nashville, Minneapolis, MadisonOklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Washington D.C. Best housing options: AirBnB, hostels. 

The beach. Do I need to say this? It's freakin' summer! What's better than rolling out of bed, spending the whole day at the beach broken up by snacks of fresh oysters and ice cream (not together), and then grilling dinner on your balcony while you watch the sun set?  Restaurants are not usually known for being fantastic in touristy beach towns, but amazing, cheap seafood is usually available at even the crappiest grocery store, so a kitchen really comes in handy in these settings. Areas to consider: Gulf Shores (Florabama), northern Michigan/northern Wisconsin, coasts of Oregon and Maine, Pismo Beach, San Diego. Best housing options: vacation rentals, state park cabins. 

A state or national park.  You can hike, fish, boat, or just lay around in the poison ivy all weekend.  These remote areas are also not known for their great eateries, nor are the groceries usually very cheap, so if you're driving, pack a cooler with groceries from home and some beer and get your money's worth out of that cabin kitchen! Parks to consider: Arches, Custer and Mt. Rushmore, Rocky Mountain, The Sinks...everyone has a park within a couple hours of home--go use it! Best housing options: vacation rentals, state park cabins. 

And while you're at it, if you're planning on cooking at all in your AirBnB/cabin/etc. kitchen, I love Food 52's oh-so-true list of things you need to bring with you.  Because rental kitchens are very poorly equipped, no lie. But I would make a couple of swaps:

  • Definitely pack your cutting board.  That is not an option, and you always have room.
  • Under "spices you use most", don't forget plain old salt and pepper.  There may not be any. 
  • A cast iron pan? Puh-leeze. Bring a deep-ish, large aluminum frying pan (oven-proof is even better) that can boil some pasta or rice and also be used to cook what goes on top. I mean, that could be cast iron, but that shit is soooo heavy.
  • If you think you're going to bake, a pie plate will work for quiches, pies, cobblers, casseroles, and more.
  • Make that vinegar rice vinegar (seasoned or not), and it'll go with everything.
  • A cork screw is not an option. It is a necessity.